Writing A Song •
Introduction by Jim Liddane
Stephen Schwartz exploded onto the international music and theatre scenes in 1971 with his hit Broadway show, Godspell. Productions were mounted in countries everywhere and the show's score, a scintillating mix of rock songs and traditional show songs, boasted the worldwide hit "Day By Day" and such infectious showstoppers as "Turn Back, O Man" and "All For the Best."
Schwartz was just 23 years old when he lit up the Great White Way, a prodigious achievement. Few of the most renowned Broadway tunesmiths had their first hit before the age of 25, and only a mere handful under this age have written both words and music to their scores. Stephen Schwartz is a member of this elite latter group, along with Irving Berlin, George M. Cohan and just a few others.
Schwartz's next show was Pippin, which with 1,925 performances, is one of the longest-running Broadway musicals of all time. This 1972-73 multiple Tony Award-winner about the exploits of Charlemagne's son, Pippin, featured spectacular fast-paced dance numbers and a stellar cast. Pippin was directed by the legendary Bob Fosse, its sets were designed by Tony Walton, and its cast included Ben Vereen, Irene Ryan (of the TV show, The Beverly Hillbillies) and John Rubenstein. Among its best-known songs are "Magic to Do" and "Corner of the Sky."
Just nineteen months later Schwartz was back on Broadway with The Magic Show, starring the inimitable master of illusion, Doug Henning. Opening on May 28, 1974, the musical comedy, about a magician who takes over for another act in a night-club, featured tricks that left audiences spellbound. Schwartz again wrote both words and music to the score of the show, which ran for a highly-respectable 1,859 performances.
Following three virtually consecutive Broadway musicals, Schwartz continued to work at a frenetic pace on other projects, but eventually the heavy grind of work and pressure caught up with him and he decided to take a hiatus. After a few years away from the scene, he became reenergize and re-emerged in full glory, directing the Broadway show Working, writing the huge cast-ensemble piece Children of Eden, and penning songs for animated feature films such as Pocohantas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Prince of Egypt.
It's been a great career for the multi-hyphenated talent, who was born in New York City in 1948, but it's still only the first act for him. In an exclusive interview for The Songwriter, here's Stephen Schwartz discussing how Godspell and Pippin were launched, how he writes those catchy melodies that strike the perfect blend of traditional show music and pop-rock, how he deals with writer's block, how new theatre writers can get started, how it felt to have his initial meeting for The Prince of Egypt before the famous DreamWorks triumvirate, Jeffrey Katzenberg, David Geffen and Steven Spielberg, and what he plans to do next.
Harvey Rachlin spoke to Stephen Sshwartz for "Songwriter Magazine"
Where did you grow up and how did you become interested in music?
I grew up on Long Island, which is a suburb of New York City, and was interested in music from an early age. Musical talent, which I think is genetically inherited, can show up very early and I was one of those kids who was listening to records at the age of three and singing all the time and asking my parents to get me a piano. I got my first piano at around age six. I immediately started to play by ear and then I took lessons. The reason I gravitated toward show music was that my parents were friendly with a composer, George Kleinsinger, who was writing a show called Shinbone Alley, which became a very short-lived Broadway musical. While he was working on it and preparing it, I would listen to the music and pick out the songs on the piano. When the show opened - I was eight or nine then - my parents took me to see it and I became very smitten with the theatre.
When you started playing the piano, what kind of music did you like? Classical? Pop?
When I was taking piano lessons I studied classical music. But I also was interested in folk music because my parents were folk music aficionados. I mentioned that I developed an early interest in musical theatre. As my interest grew my parents would take me to see more shows. I started writing little shows for myself and putting them on with the neighbourhood kids, bullying the kids into being in them. We would perform them on the picnic table for our parents and charge everyone 25 cents to see the shows.
I really wasn't very interested in pop until late in high school, because I didn't like rock and roll in the early days of it. It really wasn't until the 60's with the advent of the Beatles and the folk rock groups and singer-songwriters like Paul Simon, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell that I embraced it.
When you put on the shows as a kid, how did it work? Were you accompanying the neighbourhood kids on the piano?
I played piano in my house. We left the door open and I would play while they were singing.
When you were in school did you participate in any shows as an actor or writer?
I performed in shows in high school. For example, I played Mr. Frank in The Diary of Anne Frank. I was just a terrible actor but I wound up doing a lot of the school shows. I was in the theatre department in my high school and it was fun. I directed a production of the Agatha Christie mystery, Ten Little Indians, in my senior year.
But it was not one of those schools where there was a lot of music going on. We had a band, chorus and orchestra, but I didn't really participate in them because by the time I was in high school I was going to The Juilliard School on weekends, studying piano and composition.
Did you know at this point that you wanted to pursue a career in music?
Yes, there was never any question about that. I always knew that I wanted to be a composer and write for the musical theatre. From the time I was 9 or 10 I knew that this was what I wanted to do. As I said, music shows up pretty early in life and I think a lot of kids who wind up doing pop music are singing in little bands from the time they are 10 or 12.
You wrote little musical skits when you were young but during high school did you write any more formalised kinds of shows or songs?
I wrote some songs. I remember there was some sort of contest where we had to perform and I played a kind of classical piece that I wrote. I think I called it "Study in Gray," and it was a sonata-esque sort of thing. And of course I was writing for my Juilliard courses. I also wrote a show which didn't get performed. For a while it looked like we were going to do it in high school, but it was just too hard to get together.
What happened after high school?
I went to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh where I was a drama major; I knew I wanted to do theatre. I was actually a directing major. At the school there was an extra-curricular organisation called Scotch 'N Soda, and they put on an original musical every year. During orientation week when I was a freshman I signed up for it. I told them I was an aspiring composer and would like to participate in the writing or the musical direction or whatever they needed help with musically. I wound up co-writing the show that year. Eventually, I wrote the shows for the four years that I was at Carnegie Mellon. So for four years I had the experience of writing an original musical from scratch--starting from nothing, writing the show and putting it on and performing it for the student body. It was an enormously valuable experience.
My third year at Carnegie Mellon, my junior year, I did a show called Pippin, Pippin, which I wrote with a friend of mine based on a paragraph about the son of Charlemagne that he found in a history textbook. That was the show that became Pippin in New York. My friend, Ron Strauss, found the idea and we wrote it together. He and I each wrote some of the music and lyrics, and we co-wrote the script. I directed it. It was a melodramatic story of court intrigue, largely inspired by James Goldman's The Lion in Winter. We were all very taken then with The Lion in Winter.
In my senior year, I got a letter from someone who said he was a theatre producer in New York. He said he had heard the album we had made of Pippin, Pippin and he thought it had possibilities of being a New York show and asked if I would be interested in working on it. I was very excited about this and I went xto Ron Strauss to show him the letter. Ron came from a show business family and knew how things worked in the business, so he was extremely dubious. So we made a deal that I would go to pursue this and if anything happened with the show, he would be compensated.
So I went to New York and called this fellow, and as it turned out Ron was right. The guy was just a young, aspiring producer who lived in one of those apartments on the lower East side where the bathtub doubled as the dining room table. There was a whole series of events and false starts and cul-de-sacs that I won't bore you with, but what ultimately happened was that this guy organised a backers' audition to try to get some seed money so I could afford to continue to work on the show, because I was re-writing and revising. And through that backers' audition a whole series of serendipitous coincidences happened.
First, a real agent by the name of Bridget Aschenberg actually came. Bridget came up to me after the audition and told me she didn't know very much about musicals, but thought I was talented and said she had a friend at the agency where she worked who did know about musicals, and she planned to tell her about me. She went back and told her friend and co-agent, Shirley Bernstein.
A couple of weeks later Shirley called me and I met with her and she became my agent. That is really how my career got going. Shirley took me around New York to play the score for Pippin for people. Ultimately we succeeded in getting it optioned by Stuart Ostrow.
Meanwhile, through Shirley I was also able to get a job at RCA Records, which was my first music job. I was doing A & R for them , so I was able to support myself for a couple of years. Among the people for whom I played the score for Pippin were the producers, Edgar Lansbury and Joseph Beruh. They were not interested in Pippin, but about a year later they called me because they had seen a show at an Off Off-Broadway theatre called Godspell that they were interested in transferring to Off-Broadway for a commercial run. They felt the show needed a score, and based on what they heard from the score for Pippin they thought that I might be someone who could do that score. So that's how I wound up doing Godspell.
It so happens that Godspell was also developed at Carnegie Mellon, but that was after I had left. I knew the director and conceiver, John Michael Tebelak, slightly at school. He was a couple of years behind me. It wasn't originally a musical but it had a few songs in it that were written by cast members and some interpolated pop songs. One of the songs written by cast members, "By My Side," [Peggy Gordon and Jay Hamburger] took place in the Mary Magdalene section of the show. I thought it was a really good song, and therefore when I was brought in to do the score I didn't feel I should replace it. So that song remained in the show and the rest of the score was written by me.
Talk about your metamorphosis as a composer, what techniques you learned and how you matured.
The first show I wrote was called Whatserface, which I wrote with a woman in school who is now a well-known novelist known as Iris Rainer Dart (she wrote Beaches among other books). Iris wrote most of the lyrics and I did the music. I also wrote some of the lyrics. It was a musical comedy score along the lines of a Jule Styne musical. As I continued writing, I got more interested in pop music and over the course of my four years in college my style of music evolved so that it was more pop and rock oriented. And I would just experiment with a lot of things. For instance, in my last year at Carnegie Mellon I wrote a one-act opera. It wasn't very good, but it was an opera and I experimented with opera forms and atonal music.
You have certain creative approaches in your shows, like the counterpoint duet of "All for the Best" in Godspell.
That was just a technique used by other composers like Irving Berlin. Like the Berlin song "You're Just in Love." To me, Irving Berlin was the master of that kind of song, where one person sang one part of a song and another person sang another part, and then they sang them together. I enjoyed listening to that kind of song as part of the audience, so I wanted to write that kind of song as a show composer. I think you can hear the influences in Godspell of different styles that were interesting to me.
There were a lot of things that I experimented with at school in terms of style. For instance, in the second show that I did at school, Noveau, which was about the modern art scene, there was a four-part fugue called "The New Society." With some slight revisions and of course with all new lyrics I wound up using it for the Magic Show, for a number called the "Goldfarb Variations" (the title was actually a joke). So there were elements where something that I did in school translated to my later shows. That instance was the most direct translation.
But the more important thing for me in college was learning the whole technique of writing a show, as I said, starting with nothing, getting the idea, structuring the show, writing an entire score, and learning how to write things so there would be variety and energy, and to drive the story forward and so on. It was very good practice for writing a show. A big transformation of my musical style between college and when I started writing for Broadway happened because I was getting more and more interested in pop music. But that transformation really happened after college. The four shows I did in college were as not as pop musically as Godspell.
What do you tribute that transformation to?
Just to what I enjoyed listening to. I remember when I got to college, my roommate had a bunch of Motown records. I had heard a little bit of that on the radio, but I hadn't really gotten into it. Then I became very enamoured with the Motown sound. And the folk rock stuff was also happening at the time and I was listening to and enjoying groups like Jefferson Airplane and the Mamas and Papas. So I got less interested in traditional show music and more interested in pop music and that started to effect how I wrote.
Were there any other artists in the rock world who were a strong influence on you?
I think it was mainly the singer-songwriters who were the biggest influences on me. A huge influence on me was Laura Nyro, and I think that's really obvious in hearing my music. The way she built chords, I had never really heard that before. Where you are basically playing one chord in the treble and a different bass note or different chord in the left hand and using that within a pop context. That was new to me and my ears really loved that. So that became part of my style. I also liked the folk qualities of James Taylor and Paul Simon. Joni Mitchell was another huge influence on me and I also liked the songs sung by Judy Collins. She was singing a lot of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. And she was working with an arranger named Joshua Rifkin in those days and I really liked his style of arranging. I could go on and on but basically all those things kind of came together for me because that was what I was listening to on my record player.
You have a very strong penchant for melody. What do you attribute that to? Is it beyond musical? Is it an aesthetic part of your being?
To some extent, I don't really think there is an answer, to be perfectly honest. People write how they write and that's that. If my songs speak to a listener I'm very happy about that but I'm sure you could find people--and heaven knows I've known some of these critics!--who don't find my melodies particularly compelling.
Having said there's no answer, I think my whole way of writing is very emotion-based. Part of that I think was influenced strongly by the fact that I was a drama major rather than a music major. I was taking acting classes and writing for actors to perform and therefore what I was trying to achieve in the songs that I was writing were things that people could act out and the emotion underlying what they were singing about was very important. When I write any kind of song, not only for the theatre, it is sort of like method-acting, where I try to become the character and write in the character's voice and go through the journey the character is taking in that particular song. And that comes out I think in the melody and in the melodic structure.
And so for people who respond to what I write, I think that's the basis of a lot of it, that they're responding to the inherent emotion in the songs. And frankly for the people who don't respond, I think that's also the basis of their lack of response, that they find that kind of level of emotional writing to be maybe embarrassing a bit or off-putting or over the top. And so that's what they don't respond to. But I would think that if there is any way of discussing melodic content other than saying that it's just my instinct, that I just write the tunes that sing in my ears, I think that is the answer.
Do you have any particular technique you use to create melodies? Do you play melodies around chords or do they just come out of your head?
Again, for me it tends to start with the story of the song. What is the emotion of the song? I do write at the piano and I will sit there and noodle around. I will play chords or some kind of rhythm and just basically sing the melody to myself. Sometimes I'll write a bit of a lyric first so I'll have something to base it on, and sometimes not. So as opposed to starting with the melody and then harmonising it, I start the other way. I start with rhythm or some kind of chords and the melody tends to be written on my voice as opposed to plunking it out on keys. But not always.
You know, it's funny, when you talk about technique it starts to sound as if there's a hard and fast way of approaching it, and that the process is always the same. And it's really not, at least not in my case. I tend to be much more instinctive but it can vary from song to song. Sometimes I will get the lyrics done to a certain melody and then decide I don't like the melody and then go back and do a new melody. And sometimes I have a melody and really like it and don't like the original lyrics, and I'll just keep doing the lyrics over and over again. And a lot of times they'll just sort of emerge together. I'm sorry to be so vague in discussing this but I don't really have a hard and fast process, so I can't say "This is what I do every single time."
So regarding what comes first, the words or music, again, there's no hard and fast rule. It basically starts with what is the song about? What is the character feeling, or in the case of a pop song, what am I feeling, what am I trying to say, what is going on here? What story am I telling? And sometimes that will give me an idea for a title, or a rhythm, or a certain chord progression. A lot of times, I try to get a start on the lyric first, because lyrics are more difficult for me than music. But whenever I write a lyric, I have a certain rhythm or a certain flow to it in my head even if I don't know exactly what the melody is. Then it kind of goes back and forth. Very, very rarely have I ever had a complete lyric or complete melody before the other starts to take place. A lot of times I start with a pad of paper, just jotting down ideas, like a line here or a thought or whatever. It's more about organising the idea of the song. And then sometimes I'll just take that to the piano and start noodling around and see what comes out. In the beginning it's a very instinctive process for me. I just try to find that spark that happens where you suddenly leap to a place where there was nothing and suddenly there's something. After that, as the process continues and I get closer to a finished song, more and more craft issues take over.
So you sit at the piano and start your writing process for a particular song. Do you usually complete a song in one sitting?
Oh, no. It usually takes me a couple of weeks to write a song. Every now and then, I've had a song sort of burst out, more or less, whole cloth, but that's very rare. For some reason, the song "West End Avenue" from The Magic Show came in one sitting. I just kind of had it in my head and I sat down and it was more or less there. And oddly enough, I wrote the song "Meadowlark" very quickly. I think I had things to fill in but it was pretty quick. But a lot of times, I just get a start on something.
Also, early on I tend to vacillate a lot. I bet a lot of writers do this too, where they think, well, maybe that's not very good, or they say, I'm not really sure if that's the best melody, or these lyrics kind of stink, or whatever. But I'm just trying to get stuff down in the beginning. For me, after a while, I start questioning less, and certain aspects of the song start to feel better to me, but at the beginning everything seems vague and unformed. Therefore, sometimes I'll write something and get something done so I have the start and the next day when I come back, I feel better about it. That's part of the process, investing emotionally in what is being written. I'm not generally one who writes something and says "Wow, that's great!" It takes me a while to feel OK about it.
Do you ever get really excited about a song and can't wait to come back to it?
Yes, it's always exciting, but I'm also very insecure about it most of the time in the beginning. Because you have so many choices. That's the thing about creating something that is terrifying and exciting at the same time. Because when you begin, you have infinite choices, you can do anything. As you go along, your choices get more and more restricted. As you make choices or selections about what the melody is going to be, what the lyrics are going to be, what the title or form is going to be, your choices get finite.
When you go from a verse to a bridge and you're going to do a different kind of melody, do you have any specific techniques or thoughts about how you launch into that secondary or ancillary kind of melody?
Not really. I don't have rules. I basically follow my instincts (I'm trying to find a different word so I don't sound so repetitive!). And I try to tap into that. I think that one of the most difficult things about being any kind of a creative person is getting to your wellspring of what's inside you that comes naturally, without too much thought or technique or too many rules. Because I think that when you go further down into yourself that's when you reach some kind of original voice, and at the same time, that's when you get to material that (oddly enough) connects with people more. It's really a job for me a lot of the time of shutting up my conscious mind, trying to get around it or under it as opposed to turning it on and really trying to use it to work on structure. This is all hard to articulate but I think it's sort of like the early periods of painting from Picasso, when he made the break with realism and tried to get to a more primitive part of his psyche in his painting. I think it's that kind of thing (and I don't mean to compare myself with Picasso).
Is there anything you do to tap into that?
Well, I don't have a technique that I use to get to that place. I don't meditate, for instance, although I don't think it would hurt me to learn meditation. But I can get to that place.
Do you write in isolation? Do you close off the phone and don't take appointments and that sort of thing?
Yes, and I don't like to write with other people in the room. As a collaborator, I don't particularly like to be doing it at the same time with another person.
Do you run a tape recorder near the piano?
No, but wouldn't that be a smart thing to do? If something comes to me, I just scribble it down. I guess I do that because I don't think I would have the patience to go back and wade through a tape. If I come up with something, I'll usually write it down so I won't forget it the next day. Just enough, you know, maybe a couple of bars, and stick a chord symbol over it, so I can get back to it if I think it's really strong. But usually I remember it anyway.
Sometimes I'll be working on a new project, sort of noodling around, and if I come up with something I like I'll write it down on music paper and then maybe some weeks later if I'm doing a new song for the project I can go back and look at the little bits of different pieces and think that kind of idea or that chord progression or that little melodic thing would be good as a jumping-off point for a new song. So I will do that.
Since we're getting into the theoretical aspects of songwriting let me tell you about an experience I had a couple of years ago. It has to do with writer's block. I was working on something, a Disney movie or The Prince of Egypt, I don't remember what, and I was feeling very blocked. I spent about a month on it and I just wasn't getting anywhere. So I was talking to a friend of mine named John Bucchino who's a wonderful songwriter, and complaining to him about it, and he said a very interesting thing. After hearing what I was describing he said that it was because I was being the editor too early. He said you have to stop being the editor and just let yourself be the writer and allow yourself to do bad work for a while. I never really heard it articulated that way before, but as soon as I heard that I knew he was right.
And I think that is the solution to anyone who has writer's block. The reason people have writer's block is because they are being the editor too soon. Because when we write, we want to switch between these sort of Dionysian approaches and Apollonian approaches, between instinct and intellect. If the intellect, for me, comes in too soon, it can stifle the creativity, and you have to have the bravery to allow yourself to write what you write without judgement, even if as you are writing it, you know it's not very good. Because eventually you will get to someplace good. It's sort of like priming a pump. The first water that comes out can be a dirty trickle. And if you give up then and walk away, you have no water. But if you keep at it, eventually that washes out and you get to a purer flow. And that, in a nutshell, is the process I try to use.
And after that epiphany, did you find you got results?
Absolutely. Once you know I don't think anyone would ever be blocked again. It's a simple secret to writer's block. You have to allow yourself to do crappy work for a while, then the good stuff will come.
Do you write songs specifically for projects or do you ever write with no particular artist in mind, just because you want to write?
I tend to write for specific projects. When I was younger, I would write songs just to write songs. But that was a long time ago. I've been at it from a professional point of view for so long that I tend to write for specific projects, even if the specific project is to write a song for myself. And even then it still feels like an assignment to me, but not in a bad way. For instance, a few years ago I released a CD called Reluctant Pilgrim, which had some pop songs on it that were not written for any show. And I'm working on a new CD now which has some songs on it written as songs. But those songs were more or less projects that I assigned myself because I had something that I wanted to say or a story I wanted to tell. It's just my way of thinking about it. I've been doing this for so long that I tend to think of songs as my next assignment.
You must receive many requests to write film scores and other projects, so how do you pick and choose from what comes to you?
Well, let me say that I have the good fortune to be able to make choices and do the things that most interest me, in terms of the nature of the project itself or the people whom I will be working with on the project.
The Prince of Egypt was a major feature film and your score was a great success. What was your feeling about this movie when it was first introduced to you?
It was interesting. What happened was that after Jeffrey Katzenberg, with whom I had worked at Disney, left Disney to co-found DreamWorks, he called me and said he would like me to write the songs for their first animated feature. He asked me to come in and meet with him and his partners. So I went in and had a meeting with Jeffrey and Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. They said "We have a wonderful idea for our first animated feature. We're going to do 'The Ten Commandments.'"
And I remember my heart sinking. I just thought "What a terrible idea; I really have no interest in this whatsoever," and all I could think of was Charlton Heston pontificating and the silly dialogue in the movie The Ten Commandments. So I was sitting there sort of smiling at them on the outside and panicking on the inside and thinking I really want the opportunity to work with them. Then they said "We're not actually going to call it The Ten Commandments, we're calling it The Prince of Egypt. And then I suddenly understood what they had in mind, that they wanted to tell a personal story. And rather quickly after that, not at that meeting but soon thereafter, it emerged that what we were doing was telling the story of these two brothers and how they loved each other but how their individual characters and destinies made them into enemies. And I found that story very compelling. So that was why I signed on.
Were you asked to write any sample music beforehand?
No. Because Jeffrey knew me, we had worked together on the Disney features. Even though I hadn't written the music for those he knew my work. Actually all three of the DreamWorks heads were familiar with my Broadway work. I think if they hadn't liked what I was writing, then they would have found someone else. But fortunately, they were pretty happy with what I handed in in the early going and therefore that question didn't arise.
How did it work for Prince of Egypt? You would write a song and who did it go to at that point?
For animation, basically you go through a whole chain of command. I would write a song and play it for the directors and the producer of that film. Then they would give their comments and so forth. But in general there's a top dog, and you sort of hear from him or her. In the case of Prince of Egypt, it was most certainly Jeffrey. And rather early on in the process, I learned to just go straight to Jeffrey with a song.
When you played a song for him, was it live or on a demo?
I would just sit at the piano and play it.
Was it intimidating to introduce your song live as opposed to having a produced demo?
At first it was, but then again I had worked with Jeffrey for a long time and so we knew each other and respected each other. Sometimes he'd like things, sometimes he wouldn't. He might tell me I was on a good track, but what about this or that? He had a lot of thoughts about the songs and I trusted his instincts. I think Jeffrey's taste is maybe a little bit more down the middle than mine, but he's trying to reach a very broad audience. But I didn't mind that. I knew what the audience was so that was helpful for me.
Let's go back in time to when you were doing A & R for RCA in New York City and your work was being shopped around. Tell us about your life at that point.
As I said, my life really changed based on two events. The first was that Shirley Bernstein, my agent, succeeded in interesting Stuart Ostrow, the producer, in Pippin, and he optioned Pippin, and so I began to develop the show. Roger Hirson, the book writer, had been a client of Bridget Aschenberg, and she suggested him to write the book, and so the two of us were working together on the show. We had a producer to work with and with Stuart we took it to a director and that's when Bob Fosse came on board. So that was one event.
The other event is that Edgar Lansbury and Joe Beruh called me and I wound up doing the score to Godspell. I wrote it very quickly and it transformed my life when it opened. Suddenly I went from being an aspiring songwriter and obscure composer to someone who was much better known, because I had this hit show all of a sudden. I was 23 at the time Godspell opened.
How did you handle all the success at such an early age?
I guess I did have some difficulties in dealing with it, in dealing with the whole issue of success and being young and not really being part of the generation of people I was working with. So I felt somewhat alien--I was going to say alienated but it was more alien. I felt there was a degree of resentment in the mainstream theatrical community to me because of my age. I was kind of brash in my behaviour and I think that, combined with my youth, put some people off. So I had some difficulties dealing with this.
I guess the main thing that I was struggling with was the difference between my romanticised ideals of what it would be like to be a successful theatre composer and what the reality was. I think I experienced a lot of cognitive dissonance, as they call it, struggling between the two of them. It was wonderful to be successful, it was wonderful to have an income where I was doing well and supporting myself, but a lot of the political dealings were difficult for me.
Did you put pressure on yourself to surpass Godspell after it was a hit?
It wasn't really a matter of surpassing it, but I think I put pressure on myself to answer critics--I don't mean specifically critics who wrote for newspapers although that was part of it, but to answer the people who felt that I was a flash in the pan. To answer people who felt that in the case of Pippin, that I got lucky because of Bob Fosse's direction and that the score really did not have much to do with the success of the show. There was a lot of stuff like that that I heard and took to heart. Now, being older and more experienced, I just totally ignore all that. But at the time, I hadn't yet learned not to read reviews, not to listen to all this stuff, and it was very difficult for me.
Previous to Godspell you wrote the title song to the show Butterflies Are Free. How did that come about?
That was my first credit after I came to New York. That came about right after I began working with my agent, Shirley Bernstein. She represented the actor Keir Dullea, and she said that he was going to be in the show Butterflies Are Free playing a blind songwriter. And in the course of the show, he writes a song and sings it. She told me they were looking for somebody to write that song and asked if I would take a crack at it on spec. She sent me the script and I read it and wrote the song. She sent it to the producer, Arthur Whitelaw, and he bought it.
What happened after Godspell?
The next thing that happened had to do with Shirley's brother, who was Leonard Bernstein. He had been commissioned to write a piece to open the Kennedy Center in Washington. He had decided that in honour of his friendship with Jackie Kennedy that he would do a Mass. He had been working on this piece, but not getting very far. He sort of had the "writer's block" which we spoke about earlier. He had been looking for a collaborator and had gone through I guess a couple of them or maybe had gotten turned down. Anyway he was in trouble in terms of completing it, because the Kennedy Center was scheduled to open that September and here it was May and he really didn't have very much. Shirley brought him to see Godspell, which he liked very much, and he asked me to meet with him. He played some things, and we talked about it, and I said I would try to help. So that was the next thing I did, I collaborated with him on the English texts of the Mass. Lenny was quite a good lyricist himself. Some of them he would start and I would finish; some of them I would start and he would finish. And some of them I just wrote.
How did you feel about working with such a legend?
Obviously, it was both exciting and intimidating. I felt I had a lot to live up to and I didn't have much technique at that point. Talk about instinct--that was when I was completely writing on instinct! I think I would do a better job now than I did then, but I was able to come up with a structure for the piece, which was this idea of a Celebrant celebrating the Mass, starting out as this kind of young, innocent and joyous person and then gradually being weighted down by the trappings of the whole thing until he collapses. I basically was responding to what was going on in my life as well and sort of put that idea into this piece. And that was something that Lenny had also experienced and therefore was able to draw upon. We did it very fast; he came to me in May and the piece premiered in September. So there wasn't a lot of time for reconsideration and rewriting.
There was one interesting technical thing I learned from all that. Late in the process there was a section in the Epistles that he wanted to do. He asked me to do a lyric for it that he would then set. So I wrote a lyric called "The Word of The Lord." In my mind as I wrote it, as always if I'm doing both music and lyrics, I kind of had a bit of a tune and a rhythm to the words. So I gave him the lyric and then he set it to a much more interesting rhythm than I had thought of, a sort of Brazilian folk rhythm. But when he set it, the inner rhyme scheme which had been kind of subtle in the way that I had thought of it, became much more apparent and therefore felt a bit over-rhymed. I realised this, but what I didn't know at the time was that what I should then have done was throw out the lyrics, take the melody that he had written, and go back and rewrite the song. From a craft point of view, I didn't know enough to do that. Now I would know.
Soon after that, one thing followed another. Pippin had gathered steam and opened the next year, and there were productions of Godspell all over the place that I was running around helping to put on. There was a movie made of Godspell, and though I wasn't around for that because I was busy working on Pippin, I was involved in some of the post-production. So things were just really busy for me and then I got a call from Edgar and Joe, who had produced Godspell, to come see this magician in Canada named Doug Henning. They wanted to do a show with him. So I went up to Canada and saw him and agreed to do it, and so we did The Magic Show. So it was an extremely hectic time.
The magic tricks in the show were spectacular. Did you learn how they were done?
One of the reasons I did the show originally was because I wanted to learn how the tricks were done. Then once I starting learning how they were done I found it disappointing! So I made sure that I didn't find out how the rest of them were done. So I only know about half the tricks.
What did you do next?
I was starting to feel very burned out, but the next thing I did was The Baker's Wife, and I think it was with this show that I really wanted to answer my critics. So I was starting to feel more and more pressure on myself, and as it turned out the show had a legendarily difficult time: there were problems out-of-town, people were fired right and left, the show wasn't working, cast was changed, directors were changed. It was one of those nightmarish experiences.
The genesis of the show was that I had gotten a call from Neil Simon saying he was interested in working with me and would I have lunch with him to discuss some ideas. One of them was The Baker's Wife and that was the idea that I responded to. I liked the story, particularly the ending, and also the setting in provincial France because I had lived in France when I was a baby; my parents lived there for a couple of years. I liked French classical music and French folk music and the style of it all.
Interestingly, I found a technique that I thought worked well in terms of writing it, because I knew I really wanted the score to have a French flavour, but I didn't want to be writing pastiches. What I did was for about a month or six weeks before I started writing the score, on the piano I played only Debussy and Ravel and Satie and I listened to a lot of French folk music and Edith Piaf records and really immersed myself. Then when I started writing, I just forgot about it consciously, but I found that my fingers were going to chords and harmonic patterns that I might not have ordinarily have gone to. And that was a good technique because it allowed me to write from an emotional place and write in my own voice, but be tinged with the milieu.
David Merrick, who was notoriously difficult, was the producer. And it just was one of those bad experiences. We had trouble getting the storytelling of the show right. There were some problems with the original director, with the size of the production, and so forth. It was out of town forever, in Los Angeles, San Francisco and all over the place, and as I said before people were getting fired. It was a very difficult experience and ultimately the show closed out of town. But there was a recording made of some of the songs that subsequently became a cult hit and has kept it alive, but the experience of doing the show was very difficult for me.
So at that point, I decided out of self-defence that since I had been a director at one point, I was going to direct the next project that I did. I was developing an adaptation of Studs Terkel's book, Working, which is a series of interviews with people about their jobs, sort of a topical revue. I was doing some of the songs and I recruited some other songwriters to participate in it and ultimately directed that show.
Micki Grant wrote three of the songs. She is an African-American songwriter and it's not that she was typecast to write for African-American characters, but the point of using multiple composers was to try and get a more genuine style rather than any one composer writing pastiche because the characters were so widely varied. My old hero James Taylor did three songs and I found a new writer named Craig Carnelia and he did four of the songs. And Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead collaborated on a song about a suburban teacher.
It was a really good experience for a while in workshops and regional theatres, but when we were preparing the show for Broadway, it started to become fraught with pressures. Once Working opened and was unsuccessful, that is originally when it opened in New York, I sort of really burned out and stopped working for a while.
I really didn't work at all for several years after that. This was right at the end of the 70's. For three years I didn't write anything. I stayed at home and got myself back together again.
Were you listening to or playing music during that time?
One of the things I did in those off years, which was really fun, was I took out a lot of my old classical music and worked on my piano technique and just went back to practising more or less. As I got better I got more difficult pieces and by the end of those few years, I was playing quite well. So that was fun. Obviously I didn't let go of the idea of music, but I did get out of the whole commercial music thing.
What brought you back into it?
I did a show several years later called Rags. I was originally going to direct that show, not write it. Then I was asked to do the lyrics because the original lyricist for various reasons wasn't working out. But ultimately, I wound up just doing the lyrics and not directing it. Even though that was an interesting experience in itself and I learned a lot about the technique of writing lyrics, I still wasn't back working as a composer-lyricist fully. I guess just time got me back to it. After a while I felt that I matured in my attitude toward things and I was able to deal with the business on a less idealistic level.
And then a friend of mine, Charles Lisanby, who was a designer and who used to design the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Show and Easter Show, came to me with a project, which ultimately became Children of Eden. He said he had an idea for a sort of pageant that used the Book of Genesis and began with the Creation and ended right after the Flood. And at the same time I had been offered a commission by a church group just outside of St. Louis that biannually did a program with high school music students from around the country. They wanted a piece that was religiously oriented to work on with these students. So I said to Charles that since I had this commission, maybe I would start to do something with his idea, and so I wrote a bit of a piece for that. And that went very well.
Then I became interested in the story and the whole idea of dysfunctional generations. It was about a lot of things that I was interested in, and I thought that maybe it would be a good show, instead of this sort of pageant or oratorio and so I began to work on the show. John Caird became involved with it and Children of Eden ultimately developed into my personal favourite of my shows. I love that show. From a commercial point of view, it's very impractical. I don't think it would ever play on Broadway, it's so big. It's sort of a semi-oratorio and requires a great big choir and all these children running around playing animals. So it's kind of impractical for New York, but the fact that it has proven so durable and popular in productions around the country, and even outside the United States as well, is really gratifying to me.
So many of your projects, from Broadway shows to animated features, seem to have a biblical or religious theme. Is that intentional?
With the exception of Children of Eden, which to me is not really a religious story but one about family relationships, they were all projects that were brought to me by other people. But it's strange that so much of my career has been made up of doing this, so obviously on some level, I must respond to this material.
Do you have any religious affinity to doing biblical kinds of things? Do you have any religious background?
I don't really have much of a religious background in terms of my upbringing. It was pretty much secular. I'm often asked about my own personal beliefs, and I won't talk about them, because I feel that that would then colour people's response to the work. I want people to come to the work without saying, "Now I know what Mr. Schwartz actually believes, so therefore I am going to look at his work through that prism." And I really don't want that to happen.
So after Children of Eden then what happened?
After that, I was back to working again and shortly thereafter, I got a phone call from Disney asking if I would meet with them, because they were doing these animated features that were essentially animated Broadway musicals. One of their chief writers, Howard Ashman, had died, and they were looking for other people who could work in this way.
I had a very good meeting with them, and a month or so later I happened to see Alan Menken [composer of the Disney movie musicals The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast] because we were both doing a benefit together. We were talking backstage and he mentioned that he heard I had a very good meeting with Disney. He said he was supposed to be writing a new project for them and asked if I would be willing to write just lyrics and collaborate with him on it.
I was very interested in getting involved with animation and working for Disney so I was very happy for the offer. We started working on Pocahontas which turned out to be the assignment that he was doing. So that began my little movie career.
From the get-go, it was a very easy collaboration. Alan and I liked each other personally and we're both sort of easy collaborators when it came to being willing to change and adjust things with the person we're working with. So we got along very well together from the beginning.
To be honest, I didn't feel I was the best possible choice for the subject matter of Pocahontas. It didn't really seem like my style, but I wanted the job. So I thought if I were casting this, which lyricist would I have chosen to do this project? I thought about Oscar Hammerstein. His kind of work seemed to me appropriate for this kind of material. I also thought about Sheldon Harnick's work on things like Fiddler on the Roof, and I sort of modelled my lyric writing on theirs. Just their approach to things. And I did a lot of research into native American culture and writing, and that influenced a lot of my writing. It was fun to do all the research, to immerse myself in a different culture and try to channel that way of thinking.
What was your technique for collaborating on that project?
It was a technique that I had learned with Charles Strouse, who had written the music for Rags. We tended to work music first. If I'm writing just lyrics, I like to work to some music, because I feel it's important that the music has to rule. The emotional logic of the music has to be the thing that drives each of the songs. And even though it's more difficult, frankly, to work music first, I think ultimately for me it leads to a more satisfying product. The way I work is I get the music that my collaborator has written and I play it over and over again until I get it inside of me. Then I try to have the emotion and flow of the lyric fit on the music, so that they feel like one thing; where the emotion of the music soars, the emotion of the words soar and where the music moves kind of quickly, the words move quickly, and so on, so that the silhouette of the words matches the silhouette of the music, so to speThe way Alan and I tended to work was we would talk about the specific song assignment. I would try to come up with a title for the song and maybe a line or two for him to jump off from. And then he would write the music. Sometimes we would be together or else he would come up with something and then I would go over and listen to it and maybe make a couple of suggestions or requests. If I wanted any adjustments made he would make them. Then he would put the music down on tape, and I would take it home and listen to the tape a few times until I could play it. I would play it on the piano over and over again until it got inside me. Then I would go to work on the lyrics.
Because that went well and the Disney organisation was happy with the work I was doing, about a year into the Pocahontas process, Alan and I were offered a second film and given a couple of choices of subject matter. We chose The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Then somewhere in the middle of that, Jeffrey Katzenberg had his famous falling out with Disney and went and founded DreamWorks and ultimately called me to do Prince of Egypt and that was more or less how everything happened.
Is there anything else you are working on now that you would like to mention?
I'm doing two things right now. I'm finishing up my second CD of individual songs which should be done in a couple of months. And I've just started writing a new show called Wicked. It's based on a novel by Gregory Maguire and is about the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz.
How did that project come to your attention?
I heard about the book and loved the idea. Every now and then I hear about an idea that so strikes a chord in me that I just kind of feel "that's mine." And that's what happened with Wicked. I became intrigued with the idea, got the book, really responded to it, and tracked down who had the rights, which turned out to be Universal Pictures. I basically went in and talked Universal Pictures into doing it as a musical as opposed to doing it as a movie.
How did the author feel about that?
I think he's very pleased. I played some of the songs for him and he's excited about them. He subsequently made an arrangement with another company to do a television film of it, so he is sort of having his cake and eating it too. So he's quite happy.
About your CDs, who releases them?
I release them myself and if people are interested, the easiest way to get them is to order them from my website, which is www.stephenschwartz.com. You can hear samples of stuff on the website and buy the CD. The first CD is called Reluctant Pilgrim. The new one is called Uncharted Territory; its release date is September 2001.
How would you describe "Uncharted Territory"?
It's an eleven-song CD, including a couple of songs that existed before. I'm doing a song that Alan and I wrote for an obscure film called Life with Mikey. It's called "Cold Enough To Snow." I've always liked it a lot, but it's pretty unknown. I'm doing a song from Geppetto, the television musical I did for Disney, called "Since I Gave My Heart Away." Other than that, it's nine new songs. A few are in collaboration with writers who are friends of mine. I've done a song in collaboration with my friend,
John Bucchino, and a writer named Lindy Robbins. They're just pop songs, basically about things in my life that have interested me. There are a couple of songs which I wrote for people who came to me and asked me to write songs for them.
And that was interesting because of the way I worked with them. I interviewed them, spent a couple of hours just talking about their lives and what they've been through and how they felt about things. Then I would look at that story and kind of find a place in there where I felt aspects of their lives and aspects of my life coincided. I would write the songs from that basis, so there was something specifically about them that they could sing, but also enough about me so that I could sing them. There are three songs in the album that are written that way.
Are these basically established singers who would come to you for material?
Yes. One is a good friend of mine named Cass Morgan, who was putting together a one-woman show and I wrote a song for her. There's a Greek singer, named Mario Frangoulis, who is basically an opera singer. He was trying to put together some more pop material and he called me. I had never met him before, but I thought that was interesting. I sort of wrote this Greek-flavoured song. The other was an Australian actor named Philip Quast. I hadn't known either Mario or Philip before, and I found it was a fun and intriguing way to write a song. And then there are personal songs written from my own experiences.
Who owns the publishing rights to your songs? Do you have any kind of publishing or co-publishing deal with an established firm?
These days the publishing rights to my songs are owned by me. My publishing company is called Greydog Music, named for reasons that I no longer remember after a long-deceased charcoal poodle I inherited from friends because it was biting their child. Of course, when you write for the movies, the movie company retains some, or in the case of animation, all of the publishing. On my early shows, I didn't have enough knowledge or clout to retain the publishing. I recently made a deal with Warner/Chappell to administer the Greydog catalogue.
You direct the ASCAP Musical Theater Workshop. Talk about that.
The ASCAP workshop was founded by composer Charles Strouse. The idea was to help aspiring musical Theater composers and lyricists work on aspects of their craft and get some exposure. Charles stopped doing the workshop about six or seven years back and Michael Kerker from ASCAP then asked me if I would take over. I changed the format of it a bit, but it remains a forum for aspiring composers and lyricists to work on projects.
I do two workshops every year, one in Los Angeles, the other in New York. Basically what happens is that projects are submitted to us and from these we usually select four to do. This year in New York we did six, because there were six worthy projects and we couldn't really pick four out of the six. The writers of the projects do two presentations. They do a presentation for about twenty-five minutes of their project and the only requirement is that they do consecutive minutes. They can't do a "highlights" version where it's too easy to get away with stuff. And that is critiqued by a panel which includes me and a couple of other musical Theater writers and/or directors, or people who are smart dramaturgically and know how to respond to new material. That's critiqued and then the writers have a couple of weeks to do revisions if they want. Then they do a second presentation of about fifty minutes of their project again, that is fifty consecutive minutes. And that's critiqued by another panel which includes myself and others, but not the same experts. It's public, so anyone who wants to can attend, and we get a lot of attendees who are also interested in writing or performing or directing in the Theater, and they get a lot out of the discussion even though it's not their specific project. After the other panellists have spoken, I try to extrapolate some general approaches or general things to think about from the critique of the given project.
To apply to the ASCAP workshop, one should contact Michael Kerker at ASCAP, One Lincoln Plaza, New York, New York 10023, U.S.A. He will supply information as to what is needed for submission.
How can a person who lives outside of New York or Los Angeles, say in the heartland of America, get started in writing for the musical Theater? What are your suggestions for that?
I'm actually trying to do something on the ASCAP website, which is to have a section of it that is kind of like a matchmaking service for writers. If you are a composer looking for a lyricist, or a librettist looking for a songwriter, and you lived, as you say, in the heartland of America, you could go on this website and say, "I am so and so, and I'm a composer working on a show about such and such and I live in the St. Louis area and I'm looking for a lyricist or whatever." Hopefully we can begin to help people who need collaborators without having to move to New York or Chicago or wherever.
But once a project is done, you have to find a place to do the project. These days, all over America, things are different than they used to be and you don't just have to be in New York. There are regional theatres and community theatres and college campuses all over America that are willing to do new shows. They like getting interested in new projects and someone can start there and if the project seems to be of greater interest, it will find it's way from there. There's really a whole panoply of ways of doing it which would take a long time to detail.
What about the case of a composer or lyricist who felt that they had a talent or penchant for writing for musical Theater but they didn't have a project or book. How would they go about finding such a book or project to base a musical on?
First of all, they could look around, they could go to the library. They could start thinking about things that interested them. Newspaper or magazine articles can yield stories. Or they could look for a collaborator, a lyricist or librettist or a playwright whose work they admired, and try contacting that person. Of course, if you're not known, it's difficult to contact an established playwright. My advice would be to try and find a collaborator, someone who has an idea for something and begin working with that person.
Do you have any feelings about the state of today's musical Theater, where it's going and how it compares to the old times?
I think it's encouraging right now. There seems to be a resurgence of interest in musical Theater now, maybe partly as a result of the success of the animated musical form. Certainly it had gone through a dry spell, particularly in America, during the 80's. But in the past couple of years, there are a lot of new writers emerging and a lot of new work is being done all around the country, not just on Broadway, but Off-Broadway and in regional theatres as well. A lot of work is coming through the ASCAP workshop and also coming out of the BMI workshop as well and in various places all over the country. There are a lot of new writers who are beginning to be heard. It's a pretty exciting time right now.
Do you think they show the potential as the previous masters, going back to the Rodgers and Hart and Gershwin. Have you seen any writers like that coming up?
I think there are a lot of talented new writers. Some of them are doing very good work. I could cite a lot of names. Look at Andrew Lippa who did Wild Party, or Adam Guettal who did Floyd Collins, or Larry O'Keefe who did Bat Boy.
They have done very interesting work for their first work and they look like they have the potential to do a lot more. And those are just three names that come to mind right now.
There are a lot of new writers out there. Will any of them become George Gershwin or Richard Rodgers? I don't know, but when Gershwin and Rodgers first started out, neither were they who they became. If you look at their early songs, they were terrific songs, but you didn't really have any clue of what the length and breadth of their careers would be.
You just knew that they were talented theater writers and there are plenty of them out there right now. The encouraging thing is that some of these new writers are starting to get produced.
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